A man is convinced he has uncovered an alien plot to take over the world based on a very literal reading of a book he found on the bus.
Cast of characters
- An unnamed narrator
Doc Labyrinth decides he has figured out the origin of all life: at some point in the distant past an inanimate object was annoyed enough by some irritant that it sprang to life to escape it. The Doc dubs this the Principle of Sufficient Irritation.
In order to demonstrate this theory he builds the Animator (described as a Dutch oven but more accurately is probably a crock pot since it has a heating mechanism). When his invention doesn’t sufficiently irritate a brass button enough to provoke sentience he sells the device to his friend for five dollars. His friend puts his wet oxfords in the Animator to dry overnight and one oxford is sufficiently irritated enough to come to life. Everyone is sufficiently amazed especially when the oxford finds a woman’s slipper to animate for a companion.
Doc Labyrinth can’t stand the idea that all of our culture’s art, literature and especially music will one day be lost to time. His unorthodox solution is a machine which outputs animals after being fed sheet music of famous composers.
These animals, created from Mozart, Brahms, Bach, etc., eventually make their way into the woods behind his house, and when Doc and his friend next encounter these creatures, they find they have evolved into vicious beasts. When one of these is returned to the machine to be converted back into music the hideous result bears no resemblance to the original score.
I prefer Radio Free Albemuth over VALIS, which I’m only making that comparison because they cover a similar story… I prefer a lot of Dick’s books over VALIS.
He wrote this one first in 1976, and when his publisher wanted to make some changes Dick instead rewrote it as an entirely new book which was published as VALIS in 1981. Radio Free Albemuth itself wasn’t published until 1985 several years after he died. The story from Radio Free Albemuth shows up in VALIS briefly, altered and in a much more tripped-out fashion, as a movie that Dick and his friends go see.
The book starts out narrated by Dick himself before switching to the point of view of his friend Nicholas Brady and then switching back to Dick’s POV at the end. It implies Dick and Nicholas are one and the same, just like Dick and Horselover Fat in VALIS, although that’s never revealed to be the case here. Rather Brady serves as a what if? version of Dick if he had left Berkeley sooner and had a different career. Some autobiographical details, like the burglary of Dick’s house (which he was convinced was orchestrated by the police or FBI) make their way into the story, but Brady inherits many of the other events from Dick’s life, such as being alerted to his son’s undiagnosed hernia by VALIS’s pink light.
The overall plot involves the effort of Brady, guided by VALIS, to stand up to the tyrannical rule of the U.S. president Ferris F. Fremont. Brady plans to sneak subliminal messages about Fremont’s ties to the Communist party into an album released by his record company, although I’m not sure how that would topple a totalitarian government that kills and imprisons with impunity. The middle section of the book told from Brady’s POV is the least interesting as it deals with the long-winded theology about VALIS which is a satellite that is also God… I think. One day I will read Dick’s 1000-page Exegesis and his VALIS theories may all make sense.
In the end Brady and Sadassa Silvia (who had also been contacted by VALIS) are both killed by Ferris F. Fremont’s stooges. After the U.S. destroys the VALIS satellite the opposition doesn’t stand much of a chance. The government lets Dick live imprisoned in a labor camp, and in a clever turn of events, at least from a meta point of view, they release agitprop books they’ve written under his name.
The low-budget 2010 movie, with some really low-budget special effects, most likely would only appeal to fans of the book. It’s very faithful, including all the elements that were probably silly even by the standards of the 1970s, although I do like Shea Whigham’s low-key portrayal of PKD.
Dick wrote We Can Build You in 1962 just after writing the Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle, although it took ten years before someone agreed to publish this one as a book. He was attempting to blend his mainstream ambitions with elements of broader science fiction, and it’s unfortunate this style of his was rejected by so many publishers, since he wouldn’t attempt another hybrid like this until his last book, the excellent Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
We Can Build You is one of only a handful of books he wrote in first person, this one told from the point of view of Louis Rosen, co-owner of a company called MASA Associates that decides to build functioning simulacra of Civil War participants for a reenactment. They only get as far as creating a simulacrum of Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edward Stanton, and then later Lincoln himself, before they get tangled up with the businessman Sam Burrows.
Burrows has speculated on land on the moon, and he wants to take MASA’s idea and build simulacra for his lunar property, thinking that people would be more willing to immigrate there if they already had neighbors, even if those neighbors weren’t real. In the meantime, Louis becomes fixated on Maury’s mentally ill daughter Pris, and eventually Louis has a mental breakdown himself when Pris leaves to join up with Burrows.
Dick would tackle the idea of human vs simulacra, although in a much different way, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? written five years later. In that one he repurposes the names Pris and Rosen which he often did when one of his books went unpublished.
Whether or not you like VALIS depends on how much you can tolerate Dick’s ramblings about the events of February/March 1974. See R. Crumb’s take on what supposedly happened to him if you aren’t familiar. Others might find it endlessly fascinating, but it’s never done much for me.
VALIS is narrated by Philip K. Dick himself as he tells the story of the apparent descent into madness of Horselover Fat. Since it’s given away early on, it’s not a spoiler to say Fat and Dick have a Tyler Durden thing going on. ‘Philip’ means ‘Horselover’ in Greek and ‘Fat’ is the German translation of ‘Dick.’
I like the style of his later books, but outside of a few amusing scenes (particularly when Fat tries to avoid talking about religion with his therapist so that he doesn’t get sent back to the psych ward but ends up ranting about the deranged god Yaldaboath when the therapist asks him if he believes in God) this book would make a fine cure for insomnia.
In short: Horselover Fat starts to lose his mind after the suicide of a friend, believes he is being contacted by some kind of alien satellite and eventually goes on a quest to find the reborn savior. The story in the VALIS film that Fat and his friends go see is repurposed from Radio Free Albemuth which was unpublished when Dick wrote this book.